Monday, August 31, 2009

How The Right-Wing Lost Me

I was born and raised in Orange County, Calif., the hotbed of right-wing political conservatism. As a young reporter on The Tustin News I met and admired James. B. Utt, my congressman and probably the most conservative Republican to ever walk the halls of the House of Representatives. The closest clone to Utt in today's Congress would be Ron Paul.

But Utt was a flaming liberal compared to the ultra wing-nuts in Orange County where the John Birch Society flourished and the House Un-American Activities Committee was their surrogate God. It was the age of a Red Under Every Bed and Better Be Dead Than Red. The Republican Party was so strong in the early 1960s in that county that no self-respecting Democrat stood a chance at being elected dog catcher if that would have been a partisan post. That is why I started my voting career as a registered Republican.

I've changed political direction over the years but never gave much attention why until the answers appeared before my very eyes this morning.

The moral grounds of Republican conservatism shifted from preserving the social order championed by William F. Buckley Jr. to destroying what they perceive as the enemy in a politics of "grievance and resentment."

As the U.S. was mired in the Vietnam war in 1968, President Johnson decided he would not seek reelection, a move Buckley opposed because he understood the importance of stability and found the "burn, baby, burn" drumbeat from the left, which had forced Johnson's decision, deeply unsettling.

Buckley believed that "instant guidance by the people of the government means instability, and instability is subversive of freedom." In other words, Johnson's withdrawal was too responsive. For Buckley, maintaining social order was of paramount importance, even if it meant helping to preserve the welfare state he deplored.

Compare Buckley's circumspect opinion with that of the most vocal conservative in 2009, the "I hope Obama fails" rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh who is more reminiscent of the tantrum-throwing far left of the late 1960s than of classic conservatism.

My source for this analysis comes from an article in today's Los Angeles Times reviewing a book published by Sam Tanenhaus, book review editor at the New York Times. Tanenhaus, Buckley's biographer, explores the right's shift from old-school classic conservatism to the revolutionary "movement conservatism" of today. He ponders one of the great political paradoxes of our times: How did a political ideology once devoted to "conserving" the past and balancing stability and progress become an ideology of insurrection?

The short answer, of course, is that conservatism has been betrayed, that what we today call conservatism -- a politics of "grievance and resentment" -- isn't.

The article refers to a 1954 essay on "pseudo-conservatives" written by historian Richard Hofstadter:

Americans suffer from "status anxiety." During times of great social flux, these fears play out in politics as people seek out enemies (which helps them reaffirm their own standing) and, at the same time, damn a social order they feel they can't dominate.

It's not a stretch to say that the election of the first black president, as well as the deep economic recession, have challenged Americans' sense of self. That a resulting status anxiety would play itself out on the right more than the left may have to do with the right's general discomfort with the kind of collective identities -- unions, ethnics, gender -- that the left tends to embrace. Instead of finding affiliations to secure their status, the right's "rugged individualists" get mired in the type of anomie that in turn increases the need to reaffirm one's place in a topsy-turvy world.

The personal, deeply vituperative tone of the debate over healthcare reform seems to suggest that Americans' anger is not just about whether a "public option" is part of a reform package. The fear is less about encroaching socialism than it is about getting lost and forgotten in a rapidly changing society. Change isn't slowing down, and the bad news is that these feelings of losing control are not likely to go away any time soon.

Leave it to Paul Krugman, the liberal economist writing for the New York Times, to stick a dagger in the Republicans' defiant stand against healthcare reform. In his column today, Krugman notes that President Nixon offered a healthcare program probably far superior to what the Democrats are developing now in Congress. It died because Sen. Ted Kennedy opposed it, a decision he said later he regretted.

Nixon proposed requiring that all employers, not just large companies, offer insurance. He also embraced tighter regulation of insurers, calling on states to “approve specific plans, oversee rates, ensure adequate disclosure, require an annual audit and take other appropriate measures.” No illusions there about how the magic of the marketplace solves all problems, Krugman darkly notes. Asks Krugman: How a Republican president could sound so nonideological, and offer such a reasonable proposal?

Part of the answer is that the right-wing fringe, which has always been around — as an article by the historian Rick Perlstein puts it, “crazy is a pre-existing condition” — has now, in effect, taken over one of our two major parties. Moderate Republicans, the sort of people with whom one might have been able to negotiate a health care deal, have either been driven out of the party or intimidated into silence. Whom are Democrats supposed to reach out to, when Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was supposed to be the linchpin of any deal, helped feed the “death panel” lies?

But there’s another reason health care reform is much harder now than it would have been under Nixon: the vast expansion of corporate influence.

We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s.

And now that this system exists, reform of any kind has become extremely difficult. That’s especially true for health care, where growing spending has made the vested interests far more powerful than they were in Nixon’s day. The health insurance industry, in particular, saw its premiums go from 1.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1970 to 5.5 percent in 2007, so that a once minor player has become a political behemoth, one that is currently spending $1.4 million a day lobbying Congress.

For the record, I am not enamored by the far left crazies on the Democratic side of the spectrum. Sometimes one has to choose the lesser of two evils. I feel the Republican Party has been hijacked by the far right loonies and rendered it impotent, more so than in the old days in Orange County where the Birchers tried and failed.

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